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Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012): A Personal Remembrance and An Unforgettable Interview

Hi, Mr. Borgnine. How are you?
Scott, first of all, it’s not Mr. Borgnine. May I call you Scott and you call Ernie?

I love it. Thank you.
[laughs] Wonderful.

I’m speaking to you from Woodbridge, Connecticut, which is not far from Hamden, Connecticut. Can you tell me about your childhood growing up there?
Well, I lived on Pine Street, at one time, where they had the school, a little grammar school there. And then I lived over on Cherry Ann Street, which is part of New Haven and Hamden. I had already been to Italy for about four-and-a-half, five years, I guess. And I had just come back from Italy, and I was getting along pretty good with speaking English and everything else—’cause I couldn’t speak a word of English when I came back, being, you know, all Italian over there. Anyway, I got along pretty good, and I made friends with an awful lot of the guys. I lived on Cherry Ann Street, where Dixwell Avenue Theatre used to be—the last I heard of it it was a place where they made mattresses or something like that—but they had my name up there above Spencer Tracy! [laughs]

I hope you can talk about what brought you to Italy in the first place…
Well, my mother and dad separated, and she took me one time, and she just put me in a bag, and off we went. And I think I was around, oh, two years old, and I don’t remember that at all. But I do remember we went to Italy, and we stayed there for about four-and-a-half, five years until they made up again, you know? He kept sending wonderful letters to her, and sending music, and everything else—“Please come back, I love you!” And, by golly, they came back together again, fortunately, and I was very happy about that. But when I first saw my dad I didn’t recognize him at all—I didn’t know who he was—but my mother kept saying, “He’s your father! He’s your father!” [laughs] Okay. All in Italian, right? And after we went home, a few years later, they had my sister. And they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, she died at an early age because of a sickness, and my dad never remarried; he always loved his wife, and I know he was very sorry. He was a go-getter, you know what I mean? He wanted to do this, and do that, and everything else. At the time that they separated, he had been working on a railroad and, you know, he’d be gambling with the fellas, and, “Where’s the money?” So that was it—finally, one day, she just up and left, and it killed him. But they made it all back together again, and we lived happily ever after, God bless ’em.

I see that you graduated from high school in 1935, which was not a great time to be entering the workforce. What did you do over those next few years?
Well, when I got out, fortunately we knew a fella that was selling vegetables, and my mother asked him, she said, “Would you mind giving my son a job just to get him off the street?” You know? Because I didn’t like to hang around the pool halls or anything else like that—I never did that in my life. And so he said, “Okay.” And so he gave me a job at three dollars a week, and I worked from three o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock at night. And, I tell ya, those bananas got pretty stale after a while on that vegetable truck! [laughs] But it worked. And one day we passed by the post office, and I saw a sign, “Join the Navy! See the World!” And I said, “By golly—that would be something good!” You know? So I went down there on the very first day I had off, and the fella says, “You’ve graduated high school?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Let me check you out.” He checked me out. And he put me on standby—he said, “You’ll get in if somebody else doesn’t pass.” I said, “Fine. That’ll be wonderful.” I never told my folks; never told them a thing. So one day I got a call, “Get down here right away!” So I went down there—there was a fella who had a little trouble with his hemorrhoids [laughs]—so I got into the Navy on another fella’s hemorrhoids! [laughs] I went home and I told my mom—I said, “Mom! Guess what? I’m a G-man!” She said, “What? What do you mean you’re a G-man?” I said, “I work for the government!” “You’re kidding?! How’d you get a job working for the government?” I said, “It was easy. I went down, and I said hello, and I put up my right hand, and I leave tomorrow.” She said, “What are you doing?!” I said, “I joined the Navy.” Well, my mother was so surprised because she wanted me to go out to Yale University, but at that time in life I had no idea what I wanted to be, you know, and it wasn’t until years later, after ten years in the Navy, that I came home, and my mother looked at me, and it was one of those, “Well?”s. “When you gonna get a job?” You know? And I went out looking for work, and I couldn’t find anything—I could, but I saw these young old men walking into these factories, and I said to myself, “Me? Walking there? No way. I can’t do it. Not after ten years in the service. I’m out in the open all the time.” And I went home rather disgusted one day, and my mother looked at me. She said, “What’s the matter, Ernie?” And I said, “Mom, for two cents I’d join the Navy and see the World again,” I said, “because I’d just finish my other ten years and get a pension. At least I’ll have something.” And she looked at me, and she said, “Have you ever thought of becoming an actor?” She says, “You always like to make a damn fool of yourself. Why don’t you give it a try?” And so help me, Scott, I looked up, and I saw that golden light open, and the doors, and I said, “Mom! That’s what I’m gonna be!” I had no idea where to go, who to see; nobody in my family had ever been in show business—none of us had ever been—we didn’t know what show business was, except you turn on the TV. And, of course, in those days you didn’t have TV! So, “What is it? Well, I’ll find out.” And I went to Yale University the next morning, and I tried to get into Yale University, and the fellow looked at me and he said, “Well, your marks are alright,” he said, “but you’re gonna have to take two years of undergraduate study.” And I said, “Well, what will that consist of, Sir?” He said, “Geometry, trigonometry, algebra, calculus—” I said, “Wait a minute, Sir, wait a minute. I don’t want to be a mathematician or a scientist.” I said, “All I want to be is an actor.” He said, “It’ll still take two years of undergraduate study.” Well, I thanked him very much. A couple of years later, I happened to be in a show at the Barter Theatre of Virginia called The Glass Menagerie. We had changed it up a little bit. The part that I played was the gentleman caller. The man that had played it originally out in New York had been boisterous, you know, and all that sort of stuff, but the man that we had who directed the show was actually the stage manager of the original play and he said, “We’re gonna change everything.” So he changed it, and we made it beautiful, and he actually kisses the girl at the end, you know, and then walks out—and I said, “Oh, my God, I’ve just given the worst performance of my life. I never knew what the hell I was doing, you know?” And it brought the house down! And I walked up to the place where we were staying, and there was this man smoking a cigarette out there, and, by golly, it was old Professor Cole from Yale! And he said, “Well, young man, do you realize what you’ve done tonight?!” He said, “My God, you’ve just upset the whole apple cart!” He said, “You were absolutely tremendous!” He said, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” I said, “Thank you very much, Professor Cole.” He says, “You know me?” I said, “You remember that fellow—” [laughs] It was one of those things, you know? Of course, that was one of the thrilling moments of my life, you know? There haven’t been too many, except when I got a picture or got a television show and you’re keeping the wolf from the door. And I was married at that time, and had a child, so I had to really scrounge, you know?

I have to ask you about what I assume was one of those thrilling moments. Can you talk about the day that you went for your first screen test—how that came about, what you did while you were awaiting your turn, and how it all worked out in the end?
Oh, that one! [laughs] You know, he said to me the day before, “You come! I give you a screen test!” His name was Robert Siodmak—

How did you meet him? How did this come about?
Well, I had been around New York for a while then, you know what I mean, having come up from the Barter Theatre where I really got started, and I was making the rounds and everything else. Somebody said, “They’re casting a picture over there.” I said, “Oh?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “Gonna be Lloyd Bridges, and Dorothy Gish, and a whole bunch of people.” I said, “Well, by golly, I’ll go over there and ask him.” So I saw this portly woman—the secretary—and she said, “Just a minute, I’ll get the director.” So the director walked out, and he looked out, and he said, “Yeah, you’ve got good face.” He said, “You come! I give you a screen test in the morning.” Oh, my God, I went home—“A screen test?! My God, this is marvelous!” So, the next morning, I went up to where they were having this screen test thing, opened the door, and there was about seven hundred and forty-three people ahead of me. I said, “Oh, my God, what am I gonna do?” And he looked up from the camera and he said, “You! You come back!” He said, “I give you a screen test, don’t worry!” He said, “Two, three hours!” I said, “Okay.” So I walked away. Now, I had a dime in my pocket—enough to get back on the subway—so I said, “Now, where the hell do I go—you know, to walk down 5th Avenue—where do I go to sit, because I have to find some place to sit down for a couple of hours. So I finally found a place right there at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And I walked into St. Patrick’s, and I sat down, and I saw The Man up there, you know? And I gave a little prayer—I’ve been a very bad Catholic all my life anyway [laughs], but—I said, “Please, give me a chance! Give me a chance!” You know? “I’d like to make it if I can!” Well, okay. I went back, and I was the last man to be given a screen test, and he stood up and he said, “Okay, just saw one word,” he said, “and I take your screen test! Roll the camera!” I said, “Sir, what do you want me to say?” “Oh,” he said, “just say the word ‘shit.’” “What?!” He said, “Yes.” He said, “When you say that word, it makes you smile. You have good smile. You say it!” “Shit.” And I gave out a smile. Later on, when they went to see this thing, it was MOS—you know, without sound—and the producer looked up there, and they had these names and everything else but no sound. He said, “Who is that?” They said, “Oh, his name is, eh, Ernest Borgnine. Yeah.” “Well, what the hell is he saying? He’s got a good smile, hasn’t he?!” They said, “We don’t know what he’s saying, but he does have a good smile!” [laughs] I got a part in the picture—I was supposed to go up there to be a stand-in or something, and I ended up with a featured role in my first picture! [laughs]

So you could actually say that you built your career on “shit”...
[laughs] That’s a fact!

Well, that was on the east coast. When you finally made it out to the west coast, I believe it was for the movie The Mob, and that after that film was released Harry Cohn came up to you and tried to keep you out there…
Oh, after the picture? Yeah, he wanted to put me under contract; Max Arnow was there—you know, the casting director who had cast me in this picture. And he said, “We kind of like your work.” He said, “We’ll give you a hundred-fifty dollars week and we’ll put you down for a seven-year contract.” And I said, “Gee, thanks very much, Sir,” I said, “but I just can’t do it.” “What do you mean you can’t do it? Where the hell are you gonna get work?” I said, “Well, I have a wife who is very close to her family,” I said, “and she just doesn’t want to leave New York.” “What the hell is she, Jewish?” I said, “As a matter of fact, she is, Sir.” He said, “Goddamn Jews are all alike” [laughs]—here was Harry Cohn [a Jew]! And, of course, when I told her this, you know, she said, “Well, what am I gonna do?” I said, “Honey, you gotta make up your mind: we either go to the west coast and try to get in or we’re not gonna make it at all,” you know? So she finally decided, by golly, that’s what we’d do, and we got started, and the first thing you know we had a home and we were going along pretty good.

The film that really brought you to people’s attention was From Here to Eternity. I’ve heard a wonderful story about how, long before you were ever offered the role of Fatso in the film, you had really dreamed of it. Is that true?
Yeah! I read the book about two or three years before that, and when I finished the book I said to myself, “Knowing there’s a good God above,” I said, “I’m gonna play that part of Fatso Judson.” Just like that! But it never occurred to me that I would ever get it, you know? And out of a clear blue sky, Max Arnow called me—’cause he said, “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, “we’ll keep you in mind,” and sure enough he called me—and when he called I said, “Well, what do you they want me for?” He said, “They want you for the part of Fatso Judson.” And I said, “My God! Talk about God listening to one’s ear!” [laughs] And so I said, “I’ll be out there in the morning!” And then it happened. And another thing happened that was quite something. For seven weeks I studied that one week: “You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” And he said that to, you know, the guy that killed him—what the heck’s his name?

Was it Clift?
No, it was, you know, the fellow who died at the end. What’s his name? Wonderful, wonderful actor.

Not Montgomery Clift?
[Having apparently misheard what I said the first time.] Montgomery Clift! God dang it, I couldn’t think of his name for a minute. Anyway, Montgomery Clift stood over me, you know, after we had that knife fight, and I said, “You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” Well, I had studied that line for seven weeks because I said, you know, if anybody walked up to me and said, [assumes a mocking voice] “Hey! You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” [resumes his normal voice], you know, then I’d really want to kill, you know, if I didn’t say it right. I wanted to really get it done. Well, I went to see the picture by myself in New Haven—I happened to be home at the time—and, damn, they cut out the line! And I said, “Jumpin’ Jesus!” After all that seven weeks of learning, you know, what to say, and everything else, and how to say it, they cut my bloody line! And suddenly I realized that they left me the heavy! Man, I was the biggest heavy there for a while in Hollywood that you’ve ever seen! I was killing Lee Marvin with pitchforks, I was kniving people to death, I was—everything! That’s why, when I got the part of Marty, you know, it was even said in the paper, “Marty?! Ernest Borgnine’s a killer! How did he get to play Marty?” You know?

Well, you also took a lot of flack for killing Sinatra, right?
[laughs] Exactly! Oh, my God, did I ever! When we first started Marty, the second night of shooting I was walking along thinking over my lines, and I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around and there were a bunch of fellas standing there. And a fella said, [assumes an Italian accent] “Ay, you da guy dat killed Frank Sinatra?” [resumes his normal voice] I said, “Yeah,” I said, “it was just a picture, but I killed him.” And one of the guys spoke up in Italian and said, “Let’s beat the shit out of him,” you know? I said, “Whoa, wait a minute!” You know? “Hey!” I said, “I happen to be Italian myself”—and I said this in Italian. I said, “If you want to wait, I’ll take you out one at a time.” “Well—you’re Italian?!” I said, “Yes! And Frank’s a good friend of mine. “Oh, Jesus! Well, then we didn’t mean that.” And from then on they brought me jugs of liquor and everything else—it was the damndest thing you ever saw! That one fella in the back kept insisting, “We oughta beat the hell outta him!” [laughs] I told that to Frank one day; he laughed like a son-of-a-gun.

I’ve heard that when they first told you that Sinatra was going to star in From Here to Eternityyou said, “They’re gonna make a musical out of it?!”
Yeah! That, too, yeah. I said, “Well, there it goes to hell!” The most wonderful thing that happened— I was talking to Monty Clift one Saturday afternoon—we were on the stage waiting to go on—and we saw this couple walk through in a distant door on one of the soundstages. We didn’t pay any attention—we were talking to each other, you know, talking about all kinds of things—he was a wonderful man. And suddenly I was engulfed by these big arms, you know? And the guy said—without turning around—he said, “You’re the son of a bitch I wrote about!” And I looked around, and it was James Jones! And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah,” he said, “you are—you are really the guy that I wrote about.” And he said, “Believe me, keep up the good work!” And I said, “Oh, my God! James Jones, too? That was amazing; just amazing.

Very soon after that, you had another opportunity to work with someone who you admired very much, Spencer Tracy, in Bad Day in Black Rock
Oh, God, yeah.